Italian Senate taps MIDI to update century-old stenography

The Italian Senate has updated the mechanical shorthand technology it has been using since the 19th century and integrated it with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and computer aided transcription (CAT) software to create what it claims is one of the world's most efficient stenographic systems.

The modifications to the equipment that stenographers have been using in the upper house of the Italian Parliament since 1880 have now been protected by an Italian patent, the Senate announced last week.

"The patent applies to the keyboard and its interface with a normal PC," said Maurizio Venosi, the Senate stenographer who spearheaded the development work. His team used a modified digital piano keyboard and software that translates the MIDI data generated by the keyboard first into shorthand symbols and then into plain text, Venosi said in an interview at the Senate.

For more than a century, the Senate has relied on the painstaking work of artisans who crafted the modified piano keyboard used by the stenography system. Now, standard MIDI-capable keyboards can be modified for the task.

"The new system enables us to use commercially available keyboards and reduces the cost of the equipment by a factor of 10," Venosi said.

Venosi's system is based on the mechanical shorthand device invented by an Italian academic, Antonio Michela-Zucco, in 1860. Michela-Zucco used a modified piano keyboard with two groups of keys -- six white and four black -- to generate a special system of shorthand symbols, rather than musical notes. The symbols, which divide words into their component syllables, were then printed out on a thin strip of paper, Beatrice Gianani, the head of the Senate stenography service, said in an interview.

A century after the "Michela" system went into service in the Senate it was adapted to the digital age and new devices made possible the automatic translation of the symbols into plain text, which was still printed out on long scrolls of paper. Now, connecting the electronic keyboard to the USB (Universal Serial Bus) port of a personal computer and using the MIDI protocol in conjunction with Total Eclipse, a software program produced by Stuart, Florida-based Advantage Software Company Inc., the system produces plain text legible in real time on a computer screen, and dispenses with the need for paper.

The Senate team was assisted in its software modifications by Daniel Glassman, president of Word Technologies LLC, a company based in Greenhurst, New York, which handles the international distribution of Advantage Software's products.

"We helped to integrate the Total Eclipse program with their keyboard, which is unique," Glassman said in a telephone interview. "The people at the Senate did a considerable amount of language work, building in lists of Italian nouns and pronouns into the software."

The system, which makes use of artificial intelligence, enables stenographers to achieve speeds of 150-160 words per minute, compared to typists using regular computer keyboards who operate at about half that speed, the Senate's Gianani said. "The system is so advanced that you can teach it to correct recurrent errors. It has achieved word recognition levels of 98-99 percent," she said.

The Michela system is currently used by fewer than 100 people in Italy who work for courts, regional assemblies and the upper chamber of Parliament. But Gianani believes the efficiency and financial savings offered by the new system have considerable market potential.

"As a public institution we are not accustomed to reasoning in terms of profits, but we would be happy if this development serves to stimulate the market," she said. "We have great faith in the Michela system, which is faster and less dehumanizing than other stenographic systems. The patent recognizes the work that has been carried out within the Senate over the years. It's a question of prestige, a way of putting our signature under the work."

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